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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 377-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Science and Technology Committee
SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Monday 25 June 2012
Stephen O’Brien MP, Professor Chris Whitty and Professor Tim Wheeler
Evidence heard in Public Questions 85 - 121
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Monday 25 June 2012
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Stephen O’Brien MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser, DFID, and Professor Tim Wheeler, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, DFID, gave evidence.
Q85 Chair: Minister, we welcome you here this afternoon. For the record, I would be grateful if your two colleagues would introduce themselves.
Mr O’Brien: Certainly. I will start with Professor Whitty, on my right.
Professor Whitty: I am Christopher Whitty. I am Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for International Development.
Professor Wheeler: I am Tim Wheeler, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for International Development.
Q86 Chair: Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you for coming this afternoon. You have seen the terms of reference of this inquiry. Those who have been involved from the outset have found it a very interesting area of work. Minister, we appreciate that you have a very good track record in opposition of working on some of the issues that are of interest to us-some of the issues that we saw at first hand when we visited Uganda, and Tanzania, which is a country in which you have some interest. When taking on this role, it must have been very useful for you to have the kind of background and interests in the subject that you have. I want to start by asking you about the new direction for UK aid that was announced in 2011. When that was set out, we did not spot any mention of science or capacity building in the positions document. Does DFID take the role of science in development work seriously, from the ground level up to your desk?
Mr O’Brien: Thank you very much, Chairman. Let me say how much I and, indeed, my Department and ministerial colleagues welcome your inquiry into what is obviously a very serious and important area of work. When the new ministerial team came into office, one of the things that was on my desk to consider was what progress, if any, had been made following this Committee’s 2004 report. That was very instructive, when I looked into it, because there had been some progress, but it seemed to me that there were still gaps and weaknesses that we could address. You have kindly referred to some of my antecedent activity. Perhaps even more useful to me in this job as a Minister than my experience in relation to global disease prevention and control has been my experience before I was a politician of being a manufacturing industrialist on an international basis and looking at the application of science to achieve things with greatest impact.
The ultimate products of the bilateral aid, the multilateral aid and, indeed, the humanitarian and emergency response reviews, which were a thorough suite of reviews, were very public-facing documents. It was, therefore, perhaps no surprise that there was no specific mention of scientific capacity building or, I notice from an earlier Committee session, engineering among the supportive mechanisms and detailed processes that will help us to deliver the overall strategic objective of doing our very best to make our maximum contribution to bearing down on and achieving the Millennium Development Goals-which, by definition, get us only, broadly, halfway, if I may put it like that, in any event. Mr Williams made a very interesting observation in an earlier meeting when he said, "I am sure my colleagues agree that people do not come to our surgeries saying it is a disgrace that the Government are not building up scientific capacity in developing countries. They do come and say it is a disgrace that people are hungry, malnourished and lack clean water. It is a heck of a difficult thing for DFID when it has those kinds of pressures, is it not?" I rather agree with Mr Williams that these documents that we produced and to which you refer, Mr Chairman, were public-facing. For that reason, they retain the strategic, high-level wording that was geared to the MDGs. That is why this inquiry is very important, because it helps us unpick what will lead to achieving those.
Q87 Chair: One of the things that we want to drill down to is whether the focus on the Millennium Development Goals is resulting in a lack of emphasis on capacity building.
Mr O’Brien: That question has been presented on a number of occasions. I have to say that I have come across no evidence of that in the time in which I have been a Minister. On the contrary, what has been enormously important to all of us has been how much we can really get to the evidence of what produces the impact that will bear down most effectively, with greatest value for money, using UK taxpayers’ money, on our contribution to the Millennium Development Goals, within the overall promise that we have undertaken of getting aid to 0.7% of our gross national income by 2013-two years ahead of when other European Union member states have promised to get to that level. So it has been very much a question of what serves to deliver that overall objective and our maximum contribution to it, rather than necessarily what the explicit tools are by which we will get there, for which, of course, you need to go one level down. That is exactly where we are in discussing this.
The other thing to bear in mind is that, by its very nature, research and evidence-we run the two very strictly together-are long term. I know that is something that has been observed on an equally long-term basis by this Committee. It is long term. I think I ought to lay stress on the fact that, while with the Millennium Development Goals it feels as if we are all trying to get to 2015 over a 15-year period, having started in 2000, by definition they will get us only halfway there. What lies behind the MDG achievement will also be very long term, so we need to be prepared to look at the sustainability that attaches to that. That is why the MDGs are not excluding or crowding out science; on the contrary, they are encouraging the science and evidence to support the long-term sustainable attainment.
Q88 Chair: Can I push you a little further on the lack of visibility of science in the published documents? We have had meetings with a network of very bright people working in a number of disciplines. The meeting, which was hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, attracted students and research fellows from a very wide range of disciplines. We also met a very impressive network of people on the trip to Africa that we made. Would it not be useful, at the very least, in terms of incentivising the kind of people whom we saw doing, in some cases, absolutely world-class science, to have on the face of documents from DFID that that work is important and really matters? I know you believe that, but it is a shame that it is not said.
Mr O’Brien: I have a lot of sympathy for what you are saying. If I may just indulge myself and, I hope, the Committee, by going back to my industrial past, I was always extraordinarily struck by one difference in the billion-Deutschmark turnover company in Germany that was our subsidiary-an unusual position for a British FTSE 100 company. One of the biggest lessons we learned was how the engineers and scientists-the research capacity of that building materials company-operated on the same premises, almost physically next door to the board room, and were on the various codetermination boards, as we discussed the German business and its future. In the UK, by contrast, the company’s research facility was housed 40 miles south of the head office, and I used to receive a monthly report. There was that lack of inner connection in the British set-up, even though we were the holding company.
Coming into the Department for International Development, I feared that I would find something rather similar; on the contrary, I did not. I think you are right to say that we ought perhaps to make a bit more visible what has been done, not least in the last two years, although I certainly do not claim that it has all happened in the last two years; there has obviously been progress since this Committee’s previous report in 2004. That is not least because, as you heard earlier, Professor Chris Whitty has been appointed on a three-year term-now extended to 2015-as Director of the Research and Evidence Division, and, with Professor Tim Wheeler, is the only the Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser in Whitehall who is a leading independent scientist and academic. They are being integrated right into the heart of what we are doing in the senior team at DFID. I expect in every submission to see that they have had some thinking or influence, or have flagged up where we will need to take a decision but there could be more evidence.
This is particularly important when we couple the independent commissioned evidence and research with what we are very focused on-I have to say that I am obsessed by it-which is our operational research base. It could be claimed that DFID, as a Department, is the world’s largest operational research laboratory, without really grasping and gripping that. I think that we have turned that around. I pay tribute to these two gentlemen for pointing it up and getting a mechanism that enables us, through our country offices, to really grip and capture it. I think you make a fair point about how much we could, as it were, proclaim what appears to me-I will have to leave it to the Committee to make an assessment-to be quite a turnaround from the 2004 position. If I recall correctly, the Committee had the chance to go to the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania-sadly, one that I have not yet visited myself, although I have spoken often to the people who are operating there. However, I have been to something similar on the east African coast called KEMRI-the Kenya Medical Research Institute-at Kilifi. One is just overwhelmed by the excellence of the world-class, academic, independent, verified, peer-reviewed and practicable research that is really capable of changing lives and making sure that we do the right things in development.
Chair: Before I pass on to Roger Williams, I would like to say for the record that someone from Ifakara is sitting behind you. He will bend your ear with all the good reasons why you should visit. I think the Committee members who went on that visit would certainly encourage you to go and see what appears, to us, to be the world-class work that is going on there.
Mr O’Brien: He has heard my unsolicited compliment before I go there.
Q89 Roger Williams: Minister, you mentioned the report that was done by our predecessors in 2004, which indicated that there were some gaps in internal expertise. More recently, in 2011, the Government Office for Science made some mention of the gaps that were still there. Can you tell us why you think there has been a lack of progress over the last eight years and how DFID can best deal with that in the future?
Mr O’Brien: I hope that my first answers have indicated somewhat that I would not quite go with the phrase "lack of progress over eight years". I think there has been an outstanding and massive commitment to the recognition of how important science, research and evidence are to our ability to deliver outstanding development outcomes, results and impact. That applies not just to development, which includes nowadays a more complicated range of diverse applications; I am thinking of private sector development and wealth creation, governance and some of the more difficult things. Of course, in that period climate change has absolutely soared up the agenda. How do we make that relevant and understood? Having the Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser is crucial in that field, too. On agriculture, do we obsess with smallholders or find a range and balance between larger farming and smallholders? What does land tenure do, particularly through the empowerment of women? I regard all those things as enormous progress. Had I been sitting here answering questions from you in 2004, I think those factors would not naturally have tripped off the tongue, as they would not have been as evident.
Unless you particularly want me to pursue the issue, we would welcome all advice on the gaps that have been identified. The internal reviews that we have carried out show that there is a clear programme to plug all the gaps and to make sure that we are well covered. As a Minister, I think that is where it becomes operational, in a sense. We have a clear commitment, which includes the resourcing; we can come to the actual financial support, should the Committee wish, in a moment. If it is all right with you, Mr Williams, I will ask Professor Whitty whether he wants to add anything on the actual spread of operational attainment and application, because I would not want to claim that all gaps are covered if that is not entirely true. As a Minister, of course, I am in receipt of the advice that shows me that gaps are covered. If they are not, I would like to know, as well.
Q90 Roger Williams: It has been suggested that, because of a lack of people working in Britain on these particular issues, it is difficult to recruit in some of the disciplines that you might need. Are there any other ways in which you could fill some of the gaps by temporary appointments or consultancies?
Mr O’Brien: I will ask Professor Whitty to give us the detail on that. Certainly, in terms of the numbers employed, we are a very long way ahead. I did ask this question this morning, not particularly anticipating that you would ask it. One of the issues I was concerned about was the amount of expenditure back in 2003-04-in other words, when the Committee was looking at this previously. I received a number. What was most staggering was that, at that point, there were seven people, rather than 150 people, working in this area. That is obviously a measure of the progress that has been made. We need to be careful to compare apples with apples, but would it be all right for me to ask Professor Whitty to give you a bit more detail on that?
Professor Whitty: I think that the situation in DFID has been transformed since your last report. As a result of the report, many things happened. Now, the number of people who are full professors in the Research and Evidence Division is greater than the total number of people who were in the division when the previous report was produced, so I think it would not be factually correct to say that nothing has moved on since 2004 in this area. Clearly, within DFID, there are multiple different specialist groups that need to provide advice to Ministers on policy and on the programmes. You can always look at a subgroup and say, "This one has gone down," but overall, as a result of a decision by Ministers and the management board of DFID, the number of specialists has gone up over the last two years, at a time when the number of generalists in DFID has gone down because of administrative budget squeezes. DFID has actually been recruiting in all the specialist areas-the scientific areas-in which you are interested. I think that was a very brave decision to take. It has meant that in the last two years we have had an increase in numbers in virtually every one of the scientific discipline areas, including ones that have been mentioned explicitly, such as engineering.
You can always say, "There could be more." Clearly, it is not just internal capacity that we need-we need to be able to draw on very wide external capacity. To go back to the Chair’s first comment, a third of the Secretary of State’s statement on where we are, two years in, was on the importance of science and the British scientific base to international development more widely-not just what DFID does, but the great universities, the Wellcome Trust and a whole variety of other things come together. The UK is one of the strongest countries in the world when it comes to this expertise, across almost every discipline-not absolutely every discipline; there are some in which other countries lead. However, I do not want us collectively to sound negative on this. I think the UK has a lot to be proud of in this area, and DFID has taken a strong decision to professionalise and to boost these numbers.
Mr O’Brien: I think that is very helpful. Just to give you a flavour-we have the detail here-I have had 19 meetings with Professor Whitty and 10 with Professor Wheeler. In terms of formal ministerial update and reporting, we are moving to a monthly research update meeting. It goes to the heart of the very first question the Chairman asked: how are we really inculcating and infusing into the whole Department a real sense that this is a primacy issue and that science, evidence and research have to dominate-not control-all our thinking, so that we are operating on a evidence base, in the best possible way? We are trying to give a lot of time to that, to make that sure we understand the issues and where the gaps are.
Q91 Roger Williams: I must say that, whenever we have taken evidence, people have spoken very highly of Professor Whitty and the contribution he has made to the Department. It has also been suggested to us that the quality of some of the in-house expertise is not as good as it could be or has been. I am talking particularly about the country offices, rather than about DFID’s Whitehall presence.
Mr O’Brien: I am pleased to say that we have recently had a review; someone will no doubt remind me of the technical name.
Professor Whitty: The science and engineering assurance review.
Mr O’Brien: Thank you very much; I think the Government Chief Scientific Adviser oversaw that. It gave us a good practice commendation, which is encouraging. In terms of quality assurance, from what I see as a Minister-Professor Whitty or Professor Wheeler may be able to fill you in on the operational and management side-because of the completely challenging environment in which all these scientists sit, so that they are not just peer reviewed but are permanently having to address where they have skill gaps and what they are going to do about that, their continuing professional development is an absolutely central core of their job, let alone their career. There are also demands, which emanate from the ministerial corridor, if I can put it that way, that everything has to have attached to it a business case, the rigour of which, it has been noted over the last couple of years, has increased a great deal. As a result, a lot more technical and economic scrutiny is needed.
We are also adding quite a lot of research capacity in the social sciences; I have been very focused on that. Perhaps that is one of the gaps you were thinking of, Mr Williams. In the end, much of what we do-the good development that earns a good practice commendation-from the hardest area of the world, the Sahel, where I was last week and where there is a lot of challenge, right up to countries that are just about to graduate from aid to much more of a trade partnership, is to do with behaviour change in human beings and the way that that flows. Making sure that you have the instruments by which you can effect the change and the impact requires having a good evidence base-at governmental level, in relation to governance, or at an individual level, in getting behaviours to change in relation, for example, to water, sanitation and hygiene.
Professor Whitty: I have gone through the written and verbal evidence as carefully as I can, and I did not spot anyone saying that the quality was low, because my blood pressure would certainly have risen if that had happened. We do a lot to try to recruit the right people to, and then continually professionally develop and maintain the skills of those people in, the organisation. Several people talked about the quantity, but we are not in a situation in Government where increasing numbers are at the top of everyone’s priority list for Government Departments-for very good reasons that everyone here is aware of. However, I think the quality of the people who are there is very high. Some comments were made that were historically true, but I am confident that they are not accurate now. Several witnesses referred to the difficulties of linking up with country offices-they were not talking about the quality-and we can come back to that, if you want, because it is an important issue. It is difficult in a country office, unless it is a very large one, to have someone who is a sub-specialist in every single possible area. That is just not realistically possible. You have to have generalists in a broad field, who can then call on specialist skills from the UK or externally.
Chair: We will come back to that point in more detail later.
Q92 Roger Williams: The Minister raised the issue of social development work and the social sciences. It has been suggested that work is going on in that area but that it is not very well connected to the pure scientific areas, and they would be much more powerful if there were better contacts between the two different branches, so to speak.
Mr O’Brien: Again, I am very happy to defer to those who know what they are talking about. For Ministers, when taking decisions and making recommendations on what we need to do in relation to country programmes, multilaterals or even humanitarian responses, the interrogation of the business case as it comes up has to be on the lines of: we know we have the technical capacity, for instance, to get nutrition out to severely and acutely malnourished children in some very remote areas, but do we know that that is what they like or whether it is going to be effective? Where is the resilience-how are we building in something for the future? That is where the evidence base comes in. Because I have just got back from the Sahel, it has become very clear to me that, although we do not have bilateral programmes in the countries affected, DFID carries with it a phenomenal global reputation. As a travelling Minister, one can enjoy and feed off that, but it comes because it is deserved. It is earned because people can see that we have thought things through and commissioned research. Often, it is work in progress-that is where the operational research locks on. It is very interesting to note how the UN and, particularly in relation to that appeal, the European Union, through ECHO, has looked to liaise with and have very consistent contact with people at DFID, partly on human behaviour patterns and how we can help, through mass treatments, to make sure that we get to the individuals concerned.
Q93 Roger Williams: The evidence that we have seen shows that the most senior engineering person now operates on a lower grade than they used to. Is that the way to encourage engineering and get good engineering advice?
Mr O’Brien: I have a lovely brief here, but I think Professor Whitty can do extremely well for you.
Professor Whitty: If I may, Mr Williams, I will address both your last and this question together, because they deserve to go together. One of the things that we realised was that there is always a risk of the individual professions, first, being weak on their own, and secondly, not talking to one another. In the last year, we have brought all the heads of profession, all the chief professional officers and the chief statistician-everybody-into the division that I lead. They are all answerable either to me or to the chief economist, who works with me. The aim of that is to make sure that there is clear accountability professionally to one of us for every single profession-social science, hard science or economics. As part of that, we expanded additionally the number of people in the organisation who were specialists. In fact, I would say that the hard sciences and social sciences talk to one another in DFID more than in almost any other institution I have worked in, and I have worked in many where they work alongside one another. Certainly, in the evidence that you received, the engineers said there were not enough engineers and the social scientists said, "Please don’t forget the social sciences." In a sense, all of them had a fair point, but I do not think that there is a feeling that at the moment there is an imbalance overall in the organisation, although you can always argue about particular issues or subject areas.
One of the decisions that we took was on the engineering issue. Previously, all the heads of profession were at the most junior of the senior Civil Service grades. The disadvantage of that is that a senior civil servant has to be a generalist as well as a specialist and has to be deployable to a country office, to be head of personnel or to a whole variety of other areas. The trouble is that many of the best technical people have no interest in that; what they want to be is a technical person, so, actually, we were closing off a large number of people who were clearly not going to be senior civil servants. If we instead put the position at the next grade-the top of the advisory grade that is not for generalist SCS people-we could call on the whole pool of the brightest minds in DFID. I think we are extremely fortunate in the heads of profession we now have, all of whom are absolutely committed to their own speciality. It is interesting that the level of morale-as assessed by the anonymous Pulse survey, which goes across Government-in the team that is now the heads of profession was one of the highest in DFID, which is itself one of the highest in Government. This is a team who feel very motivated in what they do. There is often a misunderstanding, including in the Civil Service, that grade equals competence. In my experience, that is in no sense the case. Many of the most competent people are quite junior, and very influential because of their competence. More senior people can often lose touch with their technical roots.
Q94 Graham Stringer: That is a pretty good case for a salary review all round, isn’t it?
Mr O’Brien: As you will no doubt recall, that is the one thing Ministers do not get involved with.
Q95 Graham Stringer: Maybe you should. If I understood your answers to Roger’s questions, you said that the number of staff involved with science had gone up twenty-onefold. That is my quick arithmetic.
Professor Whitty: In the Research and Evidence Division-not overall.
Q96 Graham Stringer: What are the equivalent figures for the budget-not just for staff, but for science capacity building and science development?
Mr O’Brien: The best way I can describe it is to say that, in the current year, our total programme budget for the Research and Evidence Division is £235.38 million. Of course, we can split that right down into about a dozen programme teams. It includes some budget that goes towards humanitarian and emergency relief research. The trend is also quite helpful. In the year 2007-08, the figure was £130 million. By 2014-15, we are intending to get to £320 million, so you can see where the £235 million lies on that rapidly increasing trajectory. Professor Whitty’s stock take in 2011 of our central spend on scientific capacity building, which is one of the central issues on which this Committee has been focused, shows that we now have 36 centrally funded programmes in scientific capacity building, which is a core component of 16 of those programmes and the central objective of 10 of them. We have allocated £56.4 million up to 2020 to scientific and research capacity strengthening. That is the budget both overall and for capacity.
Q97 Graham Stringer: It is increasing in absolute and percentage terms?
Mr O’Brien: Correct. I offer a slight caution on these numbers, which are obviously historic-I do not have access to all the documents-but, as I understand it, the equivalent number in 2003-04 was £78 million. On a broad inflator, that would still be just under £100 million. Compared with that period, you can see that the increase is in absolute terms as well as relative.
Q98 Graham Stringer: You have given us a number of projects. When you are questioning one of these projects, how do you distinguish between middle-income countries that get support and aid, and the very poorest countries? I would guess-I may be wrong-that it is easier to build up capacity in middle-income countries than in the poorest parts of Africa. How do you make those distinctions? What is your policy position?
Mr O’Brien: I will try to answer the overall policy question and draw some examples from my colleagues. The overall policy is that, once a scientific evidence need is identified, clearly that will be applicable to wherever the broad policy context exists. Almost invariably, that will be a span of the poorest countries in the world, as well as those that may be emerging into lower middle-income status and be on the verge of graduation from a development programme into a more normal, trade-based relationship. Of course, many of these programmes are long term-most of them are commissioned out-so having a hard-and-fast rule that distinguishes between poor and middle-income countries would be very difficult to sustain on an evidential basis. What is interesting is that some of them are genuinely a gathering of evidence to a central point, whereas others are more like satellite operations. You have seen Ifakara. I used to have a connection with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which has a strong connection with the malaria research centre in Blantyre, in Malawi. There are a number of places. Malawi is a very poor country, so supporting a centre of global excellence does not depend on being a middle-income country. I hope I am giving you the answer that this is about horses for courses. The main thing is to get, without compromise, to the best scientific research base that we can and to draw in the best. Professor Wheeler may want to give you some colour and examples of that.
Professor Wheeler: This is a really important question. We need to distinguish between capacity building of individuals and capacity-building efforts that are targeted at organisations or systems. In terms of individuals, I do not think that we make a distinction based on where an individual comes from. Fellowship and scholarship holders for some big programmes like the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, which supports up to 3,000 awards over a five-year period, come from a broad range of countries. Fellows for one of the climate change capacity-building programmes-something called Climate Change Adaptation in Africa-come from 33 countries. On an individual level, we do not often make a distinction in programmes based on which country someone comes from.
It becomes more relevant when we think about organisational support. Do we support institutes that are the foremost for research regionally, or do we look at the emerging, more nationally important institutes and provide support at that level? For some of the main programmes to date, we tend to go for boosting the existing research expertise. Makerere university, which the Committee visited, is an example of such support. For other organisational supports, we focus on the region. Within Africa, we support some of the regional organisations to build capacity in east Africa or west Africa. So there is a mix. We very rarely think about it along the lines of the question that you have asked-picking out on an individual basis which country needs the most capacity-building support-because it is a broader question.
Q99 Graham Stringer: Professor Whitty said that he had read the evidence to this Committee and that there were compliments and some comments that were less complimentary. Can I read you a quote from Professor Anthony Costello? He said, "if you look at an awful lot of the publications coming out of DFID-I looked at a whole review article last year on cash transfers, which is a big issue right now-its rules of evidence would fail an MSc at UCL. It did not have any methodology about searching. Of the 170 publications it reviewed, 160 were websites, and it came to the wrong conclusion because it did not look at some of the published literature." That is pretty severe criticism. What is your policy on peer-reviewed evidence as against websites? Are they given equal weight? Are you changing your policy? What is the situation?
Professor Whitty: This is one of the areas where I would say there has been a dramatic turnaround; I would use that term, which I do not often use. We recognised that there was a weakness in our use of evidence in DFID. The reasons for that are obvious, the main one being time: it is very difficult to pull stuff together in short periods of time. Clearly, when a Minister wants something in a couple of weeks, you cannot put together a PhD thesis. We have tried to be much more systematic about thinking ahead about what the questions should be, so that there is enough time. It is now signed off as DFID policy that everything will be under four different types of evidence product. One of them is systematic reviews, which are contracted out to universities and are done very rigorously, with published methodology, using a particular kind of approach; that is seen almost as a form of research in its own right. The second type of product is what we term evidence papers, which present DFID’s own view of the evidence. I have brought one along as an example. It is on malaria, has almost 300 pages and over 1,000 references, has been peer reviewed by Fellows of the Royal Society and was done in-house by DFID staff. These are serious pieces of analytical work. Then there are some more classical literature reviews, and at the end you have rapid reviews.
Professor Costello took one paper done a while ago, not to any of these standards, and extrapolated DFID’s overall approach to evidence from that; I have to say that he noticed this paper because it did not cite one of his own studies, but that does not invalidate his point. I have described how the Policy Division and our own Research and Evidence Division now do this, while the Minister mentioned the big expansion in numbers. The job of a lot of those people is now systematically to look at evidence-peer-reviewed evidence and, where there are no peer-reviewed studies, systematic reviews-in a neutral way and, in some sense, qualitatively to grade it. You can always improve on this, and there are many areas of international development where the evidence base is so thin that, whatever you do, you still have to say to a Minister, "Actually, I am afraid the evidence doesn’t give you an answer," either because the studies are not there or because they have not been done to a high enough quality. We have really tried to say to people that it is far better to use no evidence than to use bad evidence. We would rather they write that the evidence is mixed, so that the Minister has to make a decision on that basis, than that they write something and shove in a few references to websites, just because they are there. That is not evidence-it is simply support, with footnotes, for your own prejudices. I take the general point that this is an important area. I certainly think that we have a long way to go, but the trajectory has really changed.
Mr O’Brien: I can certainly confirm-with feeling-that, where the evidence is not available or is weak, we are left to make a decision without the benefit of such strong evidence and are reminded that we are doing so.
Q100 Stephen Metcalfe: I want to pick up on that point. You say that, if you do not have the evidence to give you an answer, it is better to use no evidence than to use weak evidence. Presumably, therefore, we need to capacity-build. I hope everyone agrees on that. Can you expand on how you think that the Government can help to build that capacity, so that there can be a more evidence-based, scientific approach to decision making in the developing countries? For example, should we be encouraging developing countries to appoint Chief Scientific Advisers?
Mr O’Brien: As a broad policy statement-again, the duo of professors may want to highlight some examples for you-it is clearly right that, in the course of international development, we should make it explicit that we are relying on, and seeking to develop the science, at every possible opportunity. It is absolutely critical for those whom we contract to carry out a lot of the work that, as part of the normal expectation in the contract, they should have to feed back information-however annoying that can be, at times-because it is part of the capturing of operational research that is fundamental. Often one will refer to that in-country in the dialogue one has in a budget support context or even in a programme support context, as part of capacity strengthening of the Government machine in the country, let alone scientific capacity building. The two go hand in hand. The commitment and our strong policy support for the role of science in international development are expressed in that way.
You have heard how providing high-quality evidence is part of our decision making. Members of the Committee who have had ministerial experience will know the way the box is filled. You start with an action paper that has this great big scientific support behind it. That is always put at the top of the box; by the time you get to the bottom, you are too tired to bother with the tough detail. It is very important to make sure that you read that first paper, because very often you really have to cross-examine yourself as you read and think about whether the evidence supports your decision, and whether evidence has been found sufficiently well. That is clearly a quality assurance. Part of the answer to your question-whether it concerns country offices, the interlocutors that we have in various countries or even the multilaterals-is that, at the end of the day, both those gentlemen and the culture they are generating within the science-based divisions of DFID feel very independent and objective. That expertise is not, therefore, a tied expertise, if you like. It is tied to the ultimate goal and our interests-what we have a mission to achieve-but it is not tied to us, to try to serve us with what we would like to think. It challenges us, so that often we have to readdress what we first thought.
Professor Whitty: I will add a few points, if I may. Again, there is a contrast with 2004, when your predecessor Committee said that DFID could not cite a single piece of evidence of its doing scientific capacity strengthening. We gave those of you who went to Uganda and Tanzania the shortened version-90 pages’ worth-of examples just for those two countries; we could have gone on more widely. I think there is a lot going on.
Our strategy is really threefold. First, we want to make sure that any research we do has a capacity-strengthening element in it, because that builds out from centres of excellence. It is not a total answer, but it is a necessary answer in what we do. Secondly, we want to strengthen the evidence base on this. One thing that has come out repeatedly from your witnesses, in both written and verbal evidence, is that this is a complicated, difficult and long-term business. The evidence of what works and what does not is quite weak at the moment, in terms of capacity strengthening in science. We must strengthen that. We have commissioned systematic reviews and want to have some more primary research and evaluations, to see what works, so that we can do more of it, in a sense. Where we see gaps-for example, in social science-we set up programmes specifically to build research capacity. That is the third way.
Some of that is just to improve scientific capacity in general. For Government, we have also done things that we hope will help. They range from helping the Committee on Agriculture, Livestock Development and Environment of the Rwandan Parliament with technical support scientifically, through to supporting science journalism, so that the science that Ministers and others in Departments are hearing from the popular press is accurately reported, through to supporting the Commission for Science and Technology-COSTECH-members of which several of you met in Tanzania, and its opposite number in Uganda. There are other examples of that. We are trying to support the overall scientific base and the machinery of Government, both ministerial and Civil Service-wide, in as many ways as possible.
The final point that I will make is that it is important to remember that many African Ministers are themselves very educated scientists. It is a false assumption, in both Asia and Africa, that the Ministers will know nothing about science. The Minister of Health in Ethiopia, whom I am meeting on Thursday, is actually a world-class malaria researcher and physician, as well as a Minister. We should not feel that they are always the poor relation in this setting.
Mr O’Brien: That is very true. I often feel noticeably un-PhDed.
Professor Wheeler: I think two additional points are relevant. We use the expertise that we have in the Research Councils in the UK to fund joint programmes between southern research partners and expertise in the UK. The Research Councils’ programmes are an example of excellence in research, but we can also bring southern participation into those programmes-under strict quality assurance, it is important to say. That contact enables them to build capacity in their own systems.
Just to illustrate the scale of the output here, in the last 12 months we are talking about 3,200 research outputs. To answer Mr Stringer’s question, 1,600 of those were peer-reviewed outputs. There have been 1.2 million downloads of DFID-funded research in the last 12 months, so we are talking about huge capacity building of the research programme in total.
Q101 Stephen Metcalfe: That is very useful. With such a large volume of research going on, how do you ensure that it is used in a timely fashion, where necessary? In their January 2012 report, Oxfam and Save the Children said that there was evidence of a humanitarian crisis coming down the road, yet no one acted on that. Presumably, somewhere in those 3,200 bits of research there was the evidence for that, both in-country and here, but no one put the two bits together or made the connections. How can we ensure that those connections are made and that there is enough capacity to do that?
Mr O’Brien: It is a very important area to understand, because those reports were important. Clearly, they captured a lot of people’s attention. We looked into them extremely carefully, because it matters enormously to us whether there really was dilatoriness in response or a lack of connection, and it is enormously important that we make sure that any lessons are learned. I think it is fair to say that we were not as convinced as those two reports that there had been a massive delay; there was a pretty rapid response. Those who know the Horn of Africa know that there is a very varied set of circumstances across the area in which some of the difficult challenges for very vulnerable people arose. In Somaliland, for instance, it was possible to gain access and there was a pretty rapid reaction, as there was a lot of connection. It was possible even to get very close to some of the south-central areas and to start protecting the last of the livestock, so that one was not just building resilience but making sure that capacity was sufficient to continue and get to the rains-just to get beyond the great pressure point. Of course, the access issues mean that there are problems of getting in, even if you have a clear humanitarian disaster. We could see that from the numbers coming across the border to the refugee camp at Dadaab, which I visited. Only a third of a million people-I say "only"-have been there for 21 years, but now there are half a million people there, with people in grave circumstances, in many of the peripheral areas. That is a result of the fact that even "unbadged" humanitarian workers-forget the donor agencies-can gain no access to some areas.
Clearly, we took the issue seriously and examined it. We did not find that there were quite the shortcomings that those reports would indicate. I have a full understanding of-indeed, some sympathy for-the charities’ position. When they see an emerging crisis, as we clearly now have in the Sahel, it is quite important to say, "Let’s remember that we didn’t react fast enough in Somalia," in order to advocate a speedy response in the Sahel. In fairness, I think that there was quite a reasonable response in the Horn and that the United Kingdom can hold its head up high. We took a leadership position, had good connections in the area and, while never alone, were able to use some comparative advantage to be effective on the ground and to start building and leveraging international support sufficient to make a difference. In the Sahel, we did not have the same levels of comparative advantage. It just so happens geographically to be an area I know well, from a student expedition 33 years ago; I was able to go back for the first time last week. It was therefore important that the EU, France and the US were all able to step up quickly, and we were able to play a full part, according to our strengths.
I think this is a really live case and answers your question to some degree. What has been interesting is that I can see with my own eyes-that is why I think ministerial and Select Committee visits are very important-that, but for what we have already done collectively in the Sahel, you would be seeing many very severely ill, if not dying, children on your television screens, and the cry would be, "Why haven’t you got in there?" Because you are not seeing that, there is a degree to which people are wondering whether it is being exaggerated, so it becomes a more difficult advocacy and political case to make. This early intervention has probably taken away the inevitable, very sharp and severe level of famine or disadvantage that would occur. Be in no doubt-this has the capacity to get a lot worse before it gets better. Again, we have a major access difficulty in Mali, where there is grave destabilisation and insecurity. All of that said, I cannot point to definitive evidence of what I would call the "but for what we have already done" test. That is why, in live time, objectively commissioned research and evidence are vital to my capacity politically to keep appealing to the British public and other nations for a fair share and balance of responsibility. We should be able to demonstrate that, and it should be objective. Equally important is our operational research and working with others. As the Chief Scientific Adviser said, this is incredibly complex and very long term, but it is vital that we have it for the future credibility of our ability to maintain and sustain this level of help and support.
Professor Wheeler: I think this is a particularly difficult area: how do we get the best science knowledge to inform actions in what can be a very rapid-onset disaster or, in the case of the Oxfam/Save the Children report, a slow-onset disaster? In response to Lord Ashdown’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, the Secretary of State asked Sir John Beddington to look into two things. The first was to examine how science can best be used in such disasters. That report, which was launched last week by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, recommended setting up a risk group formed of science advisers and other experts who can provide a three-month look ahead. So looking ahead, from what we know now, three to six months into the future, can we anticipate any potential disasters from a natural or biological source coming down the line? Secondly, if we get a rapid-onset disaster, how can we mobilise quickly the science expertise that we need to inform action? So things may slowly improve looking forward. If we look forward to the 20 to 30-year time horizon, John Beddington has just commissioned a foresight programme to look at the use of science over that period and how we can use science best to predict some of these quite difficult natural or biological disasters. I think things are moving forward slowly, and there is evidence of that in those reports.
Mr O’Brien: Chris may want to add something, but I noticed that the report that I launched at the Wellcome Trust on 11 June shortens to the title SHED, which I find rather unglamorous, I have to say.
Professor Whitty: I will add two points. First, on natural disasters specifically, it is important to realise that there is a range of things that are predictable. On the whole, famines are predictable, because there are a number of things, both social and biological, that tell you that-failed rains, people selling off cows, and so on. Things like earthquakes are not predictable. You may be able to predict where they are going to happen-for example, there are likely to be earthquakes around Kathmandu at some stage, as we know it is sitting in the wrong kind of place-but the science is a long way off being able to predict when it will happen. However many scientists you have in the room, you will still not be able to predict that, so our ability to make policy decisions on that basis is limited.
The other thing to say is that we must be careful not to conflate two separate things. One is making sure that DFID’s own research gets out into the public domain. We have a programme that is probably stronger than that of almost any other research funder in the UK for insisting that everyone who does research for DFID has to have a communication strategy, to make sure that it gets out. It is not enough just to wait until the peer-reviewed publication or the book comes out some years later. That kind of communication is rather different from making sure that there is a group of people who can assimilate all the information that you need at a particular point in time, and help advise Ministers and others when they are making their decision. They are different things, but they are equally important.
Q102 Stephen Metcalfe: I have what I hope will be two quick questions and I will ask them together, if I may. Minister, the first relates to your SHED report. Are you intending to implement that fully? The other point, and then I won’t need to come back, was about the role of the Carnegie Group. I know they are separate issues, but I wonder whether you could say a thing or two about that.
Mr O’Brien: I am glad that you have asked the questions that way. I will answer the one about the SHED report. Once I have it, I can give you an honest answer on whether we are going to implement it in full, but it is designed-set up through the Government Chief Scientific Adviser-to be likely to give us the evidence base and a series of recommendations. Can I track back a little to the initial foresight report, which dealt with the expected level of population and whether we have a planet that will be able to sustain that? The report was able to range widely and go into depth, and it tried to marshal all the factors that led to that. Putting a series of ifs in place gave you an answer as to whether we were capable of sustaining the level of expected population growth on our planet. Those ifs are now the things that we are all working on to find out whether they can be met and, if not, what the alternatives are.
As far as the Carnegie Group is concerned, I had a good look at this question and decided that it was definitely one that I wanted the professor to answer.
Professor Wheeler: As you probably know, our initial contact with the Carnegie Group is through the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. We are very fortunate, in a sense, in the way that John Beddington supports research and evidence for international development; he has been a strong supporter of a lot of the work that DFID has done throughout his term of office. In terms of our representation on that group-international development evidence-that has worked very well for us.
Going to the next level down, through the Chief Scientific Adviser, we feed into the Global Science and Innovation Forum. That informs John when he goes to the Carnegie Group meetings. That is, probably necessarily, quite a procedural step. It is probably equally important to say that every Wednesday morning there is the informal to and fro between John Beddington, Chris and the other Chief Scientific Advisers, which gives a more rapid turnaround of influence up to that level. I think that dialogue is important, but I struggle with the overall question of whether we could use that connection more effectively. As I said, I think we are in quite a good position at the moment, but how we could use that more effectively to support developing country capacity at that level is something perhaps that we need to think more about.
Q103 Pamela Nash: The Wellcome Trust’s Sir Mark Walport said in his evidence "that the UK could be more effectively joined up in its international activities". When conducting this inquiry, we have met beneficiaries of all sorts of UK organisations, including DFID but also the Scottish Government, our universities and, of course, the Research Councils. Do you agree with Sir Mark’s statement? If so, how can we remedy this situation? Does DFID have a role in that?
Mr O’Brien: Let me say how much I would hesitate to disagree with Sir Mark Walport. I think it is true in today’s world of science that all science, from whatever quarter, and all users or commissioners of science do not want to have to relearn what is already going on. In a sense, everyone wants to come up to a base from which they then go further forward. That has worked fantastically, as I understand it, in the area of research relating to the genome. In this area, it is more difficult, because-as you no doubt realise-it is very complicated and extraordinarily cross-cutting. It is very difficult even to decide what the critical path is-whether it is of behaviours or scientific application. In a sense, I could answer simplistically that of course it would be brilliant if everybody could be very joined up, but inevitably there is a degree to which any organisation is seeking to align its resource. As you have heard, there is a real commitment not only to recognising principle and policy here, but to putting the resource behind it and making sure that we have a challenging environment-not just a benign environment-for science, which may well produce answers that are inconvenient to Ministers and to preconceived notions.
The straight answer is that it would, of course, be very nice to do it, but to some degree there is a commissioning responsibility that has to come back to those who have decided where this sits within their panoply of effort and where they are trying to make sure-particularly going back to some of the earlier questions-that we are not leaving gaps and retain confidence in the science and evidence as it emerges, in order to help us make decisions, which, ultimately, are to do with the delivery of policy and the utilisation of our taxpayers’ money to best impact and effect, according to the mission we have outlined. It is a yes, but with the qualification that we must not do it to the point that we lose responsibility for the money we have identified and wish to expend.
Professor Wheeler: Can I add a little to that?
Mr O’Brien: The danger of being surrounded by such clever people is that they always have something to add.
Professor Wheeler: Briefly, I think there are three sides to this. I think it works best at the top and less well at the bottom. In the UK, we have the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences. As a body, that plays a very valuable role in pulling together the UK interests in this area and the expertise that we have in the UK.
If we step to the second point, on an international basis, I think this works well on a programme-by-programme basis. In the programmes where we work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, I think we are joined up well right the way across the piece, in both agriculture and health. With IDRC, which is the Canadian unit, we again work well.
Coming to the least last, it is incredibly difficult to try to join up all the related areas, throughout the international donor community, into one collaborative programme. In fact to do so would probably exhaust the entire division.
Q104 Pamela Nash: I was referring specifically to UK-based organisations.
Professor Wheeler: I think that is where we are strongest-in joining up within the UK.
Q105 Pamela Nash: Is there anything you would like to add?
Professor Whitty: I think the donors and funders are joined up very well, as Tim said, through formal mechanisms like UKCDS, which is another creation of this Committee. The links with the universities are more problematic. The real problem is that, frankly, if I saw a representative of every university that writes in to say it would like to have a bilateral meeting, I would spend almost all my time meeting universities on a one-to-one basis. We are trying to put together a mechanism by which we can meet groups of universities, where the discussion can be open and no university is privileged. That is the level in the UK where I think there is a problem. I do not think there is a problem when it comes to us. For example, I meet the heads of the Research Councils regularly, both through UKCDS and through other mechanisms. That kind of stuff works fine.
Mr O’Brien: At ministerial level, it tends to be with foundations more than with the universities, because it is about getting the commissioning to be complementary, if not reinforcing.
Q106 Pamela Nash: I also mentioned the Scottish Government in my question. I am not sure what the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have in terms of international development, but the Scottish Government have quite a considerable programme. Is there any co-ordination between the UK and Scottish Governments?
Mr O’Brien: There is indeed. I will put to one side the development budget issues, but on the science side, which is what you are focusing on, it is well recognised, not least because development is a UK-wide responsibility, that we have to gather the whole UK input into supporting this.
Professor Whitty: It reached its best point when Anne Glover was Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland. She is now Chief Scientific Adviser for Europe, but she actually chaired the UKCDS, so at that point there was phenomenally good linkage. As a Chief Scientific Adviser, I meet regularly her successor, Professor Muffy Calder-less on the development side, but there is good linkage. Of course, a large proportion of our academic staff is based in Glasgow-more accurately, in East Kilbride. It is not the case that we have no Scottish links; in fact we are probably more joined up in Scotland than many other Government Departments.
Mr O’Brien: That is one of the many reasons I enjoy going up to East Kilbride quite regularly, mainly in order to talk to the two professors’ teams.
Q107 Pamela Nash: That is interesting; I am glad to hear that. I would like to move on to the relationship that the Department has with other UK Government Departments’ international initiatives, such as the Science and Innovation Network and the Global Science and Innovation Forum. Is that a relationship that is working well at the moment?
Mr O’Brien: I am going to ask others to answer that, as I am not personally involved in those. In many ways, that is the answer. At a ministerial level, that is not where I would spend my time.
Professor Whitty: Again-I am just echoing Tim’s point-at the top this is easy. I meet my counterparts in other Government Departments every week, and we discuss these issues regularly. In terms of the Science and Innovation Network, which is a joint FCO-BIS area, there are two countries where we co-locate; they are India and China, and India is the most important. One of the reasons we chose to put DFID’s first experimental, in a sense, research hub in India was that we have there the Science and Innovation Network person, the Research Councils UK person and our person all sitting in the same room so that we make sure we are properly joined up in the Indian area. Most of the SIN is focused on the developed north, so most of the people are in Europe, the States and so on. They are very useful if the Minister or I go to Washington, for example, on a scientific issue, as they will give us briefings, but there is not an awful lot of overlap in terms of geography. Wherever there has been overlap, we have worked really well with them and it has been a very encouraging process.
Q108 Pamela Nash: I know you are not responsible for the Science and Innovation Network, but do you foresee any opportunities for the situation in India to be replicated in other countries?
Professor Whitty: From a DFID perspective, we are looking seriously at whether we should put a research hub in Africa. There are a number of reasons why just replicating across may not be the right thing to do, but we want to see whether we can do that. The SIN is looking seriously at putting people into Africa. In the medium term, that is absolutely the right thing to do as countries’ development increases. The rate of change and development in Africa is astonishing to those of us who have worked there for 10 or 15 years. There are many countries in Africa, like Ghana, that are really very sophisticated in their use of science and it would be a real shame for us not to tap into that emerging market of scientific information. I would love to see more experience of this. I do not want to speak for the SIN, because it is not my Department, but I know that it is genuinely looking at whether it should put someone in Africa and, if so, where, outside South Africa, where it is a relatively straightforward yes. It is probably something to ask the SIN rather than me.
Pamela Nash: We will keep an eye on that.
Mr O’Brien: Some places have done outstanding work in the past. Maybe they have lost their track record, but clearly they are now being built again. One of the biggest questions is not just the place where you do the work but having access to the volume of people it will have an impact on. A big question would be whether to go to Ghana or to Nigeria, where the population is forecast to reach a billion in fairly short order. That would make some sense in terms of the potential application and the pool from which you could draw. I make no presumption; I am just saying that those are the considerations that we would have to look at.
Q109 Pamela Nash: We received some limited evidence criticising the relationship that DFID’s offices here in the UK have with the country offices. Obviously, that relationship is not uniform in every country, but can you comment generally on how it works at the moment and how it could be improved?
Mr O’Brien: In terms of collaboration and working with our country offices, as you heard a little earlier, it is very unusual for the country offices to be staffed by those who are particular specialists in the area. It is very much about drawing on a pool of specialists, either in the London office or, particularly, from Abercrombie House in East Kilbride, where we have a number of these specialists. You have also just heard about the offices in certain countries such as India.
The issue with collaboration is that, whilst we have a complete commitment to support our country offices-quite rightly, as you would expect-they are increasingly engaged with the Research and Evidence Division, because all of them are required per programme and in everything they do to think not just about the operational research. I will give an example. Increasingly, if you are trying to distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets in areas of mass population in, say, Kano, in Nigeria, however much we get programmes in place, 98% of people are still going to access a bed net, if they do so at all, through their local shop-the private sector. Whether it is through the AMFM or not, how can we be sure, if we give money to the shopkeeper-the stock controller-in order to bring down the price, which will increase the access of those who have a lot less money to spend on this item, that that will increase access rather than his or her margin? We need evidence for that.
Q110 Chair: We saw a very good project in Dar es Salaam that we would commend you to look at.
Mr O’Brien: I imagine that Jane E. Miller may have been involved-maybe not-but a number of projects have really been working hard to understand this. I would like to hear the details of that.
Q111 Chair: They have used an SMS system to ensure that the right information is transmitted back.
Mr O’Brien: That is excellent. SMS is one of the technologies that is really capable of transforming the empowerment of poor people, in particular, or those just above the level of poverty-just at the start of having a business-so they are not subjected to commodity flow prices and can actually start commanding more power in the marketplace. Whilst that certainly affects the agricultural sector, it does affect these commodity supplies, such as bed nets and family planning commodities, which are crucial to the future of these communities, families and populations.
Professor Whitty: Whereas I felt that quite a number of the criticisms that were raised were based on a lack of information, I think this one has some basis in fact. Before I joined DFID, one of the things I was told by colleagues from the Gates Foundation was that they would give their eye teeth to have the network that DFID has in the country offices, yet the research and the country offices really had very little relationship with one another. I think it has improved by a number of mechanisms, one of which is having more advisers on the front line, and secondly by demanding now that every single project has to put evidence of impact and need in the project document. That has meant that people have really been forced to engage on the evidence side.
On the research side, I think there is a way to go. Clearly, it was very difficult in 2004, when your predecessor Committee published the last report. If you had such a small research team, they could not possibly cover things. Now we have a much larger group of people who can do it. We have actually dedicated a team whose job it is to interact with the country offices, particularly in Africa, to try to overcome these barriers, because we accept that they exist. We have put a research hub in Asia, physically based in Delhi. That has worked very well for covering India, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is less easy, for reasons that are obvious to everyone who reads the newspapers, to cover Pakistan and Afghanistan; that is still something that we have to do from here.
We acknowledge that there is still a way to go. We think we have moved quite a long way, but we need to do more, which is why we are looking at things like hubs in Africa. However, there is a limit to how much you can replicate that; the value for money does decrease after a while. I hope that, if we were asked the same question in two or three years’ time, we would be able to give a much more universally positive answer. I think we are on the upward slope, but we are on the earlier part of that slope in many of the country offices.
Pamela Nash: I think you have just signed yourself up to another witness session as today is tight.
Chair: Minister, before we move on, I am conscious of time. Are you okay until about a quarter to 6?
Mr O’Brien: Yes, that is fine.
Q112 Stephen Mosley: Dr Beth Taylor from the Institute of Physics told us that the learned societies had in place a lot of schemes of around £10,000, with voluntary time; they have quite a bit of capacity to do things at that level. They also say that you have a number of projects that are at the £1 million-plus level but there seems to be a gap around £100,000 to £200,000. Do you agree with that? If so, do you think that some emphasis should be put on that sort of level?
Mr O’Brien: You are right to identify that the majority of our schemes are probably in the large category, but it would be wrong to say that the small or medium-sized projects and programmes are either deliberately-which I do not think you were suggesting-or de facto excluded or over-minimised. It is a question I have asked myself, given how important it is to make sure that the smaller programmes are capable of being integrated into our broad research effort. In the year that has just finished-2011-12-we provided £27 million to the Research Councils for various collaborative programmes, which comprised small to medium-sized projects. It is primarily through the Research Councils that we could address what that evidence suggested to you would otherwise be a gap, and £27 million is a reasonable figure to be spread across a number of small and medium-sized projects. That is the answer from a ministerial level, looking at it from that point of view.
Professor Whitty: I agree with the underlying principle behind the question: that small things often give you at least as much information as big things, and that a large number of smaller things, rather than big things, can often be the right approach. What was interesting when I read a lot of the witness statements was that people would say, "Why isn’t DFID doing something like EDCTP?", but DFID funds EDCTP. They would also say, "Why isn’t it more like MRC?" Actually, we provide most of the money, through the concordat, that the MRC uses.
We ourselves can handle bilaterally only quite large grants, because, although we have a much larger research division, it is nowhere near the ratio that a Research Council or, let’s say, the Wellcome Trust can throw at peer review and doing this properly. We can do only a relatively small number; we have to make them big. We then try to make very skilled use of Research Councils, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Basically, we buddy up with them. We provide some or, in many cases, the majority of the money; they provide the expertise in running panels and the peer review system, which we jointly agree. That mechanism allows us indirectly to fund a lot of these smaller things. It is interesting that many of the examples that people quoted when asking, "Why doesn’t DFID do this?" involved DFID money-it was just DFID money channelled by another route. I do not want in any sense to dismiss the question; it is absolutely right. Tim, do you want to add anything?
Professor Wheeler: It is a portfolio question. There are a small number of projects in the £100k to £200k ballpark. Two of those reported recently. We had the Africa groundwater map, which was a DFID project. We had the smart water pumps in Kenya project, which got a lot of media attention in the last couple of weeks. People do not often realise-and this is Chris’s point-that they are DFID projects, because they are small projects but, nevertheless, in a big portfolio, there are a reasonable number of these.
Q113 Stephen Mosley: Moving on to something slightly different, we have met a large number of students and people on Commonwealth Scholarship Commission schemes. One thing they said was that there seems to be a lack of opportunities for early career researchers. Quite frequently, people at the beginning of their careers have to go abroad to build their careers. Are you doing anything to support researchers at the beginning of their careers?
Mr O’Brien: Again, this is an HR point. I am thoroughly committed to really expanding this and letting it happen. Within DFID, we have a parallel scheme that has been announced, which is to get many of those who have qualified and are, therefore, in the early steps of their career in the NHS-whether they are doctors, nurses, therapists, technologists, engineers or radiographers-to have three or six months out in a developing country, partly because of the enormous benefit when they return, as they will have been exposed to public health, mass drug administration, and dealing with dehydration and malnutrition. Some of those elements have been lost from the ethos of the NHS, so there is enormous benefit to us. It is not exclusively for early careers; it can be more convenient for young people to decide to be abroad for a period, but it is also for those who wish to do it mid-career and, indeed, for those who have recently retired. It is trying to get that capacity.
You need people who are qualified and have sufficient capacity and capability-it is the same in academic and research circles-because there is not the supervisory capacity in the receiving partner country. Thinking of the electives that doctors go on to South Africa, it tends to be South Africa because many other countries in Africa do not have the supervisory capacity that is required. As a matter of principle, these are important.
In DFID’s case-or, if you like, the NHS case-what matters is what is stopping people doing it. In my view, the question in five years’ time for any NHS job should be, "Why weren’t you in a developing country for six months at some point in your career?" The fear has been, first, what is my re-entry; secondly, does my pension suffer; and thirdly, from the institution, have we got the capacity to backfill? To some degree, those all apply equally to the academic side, but you raise a very important question that is broader than purely this particular field. As a personal and ministerial decision, we have made a very clear commitment that we see this as absolutely vital to growing the capacity back here in the UK, apart from anything else, but it will be a fantastic knowledge and technology transfer to many developing countries at the same time. Would you now like to make it relevant to our Department?
Professor Wheeler: The first thing to say is that I totally recognise the point that the students have made to you. One of the problems is that, in the career path of academia, the big bottleneck is different in different countries and different disciplines. For example, in health-my own field-by and large, able people in Africa can get a PhD, but they get a fall-off when it gets to the postdoctoral stuff that they can go on to; if you are in a London school, that is the question that you will have. In the social sciences, people cannot even get on to masters; the blockage occurs at an earlier stage of the pathway. You have to think about every discipline. The reasons for this are weak institutions that are not able to support people, or not being able to get research grants. There are multiple reasons for this; there is not a single fix.
First, we acknowledge that there is a big problem. Secondly, where possible, we try to support people like the Royal Society, who are taking these things seriously. Thirdly, this is not an area where DFID feels it has a particular competence; it is very much an area where we would have to work through others. This is incredibly technical. You really need to know your field in quite micro detail to be able to work out where the blockages are and which are the right things to do. We recognise the problem and will try to work with others to address it but accepting that it is complicated and that DFID has only a certain level of competence in this area.
Q114 Stephen Mosley: I move to something slightly different that we have heard. John Young from the Overseas Development Institute told us about some research work that went on in India a few years ago. They did the research work, which was absolutely fantastic, but there was a difficulty in translating that into actual policy decisions at the end of that research. We have heard that the moratorium on communications within the UK Government is stopping us from progressing these things. You fund the research, but, when it comes to implementing it, no one knows about it so it is difficult then to implement it. Is that something you have come across? Is it still happening?
Mr O’Brien: It is a fair point, because these constraints on expenditure do bite. Communications is one of those areas that is clearly a discretionary expenditure, which, whether you are in Government or a business, you would choose to attack first, because it is doable, with immediate impact and effect on what you are trying to achieve in terms of bottom-line expenditure. I accept that if you do not communicate and broadcast some of your gains-your findings-they will be of less application going forward. I am sorry-that is a phrase that my ministerial colleagues have just banned us from using. "Being able to progress"-mind you, that might be banned as well; I don’t know.
While I accept the point of principle, I think it has not been that huge as far as DFID is concerned. We are really working on trying to increase awareness, and we work really hard through our country offices to ensure that there is dissemination. Some of you may have had the opportunity to check out the DFID and R4D websites. Most reactions are that these are pretty positive experiences in terms of the communication of what is going on. I do not know whether it is in sufficient detail for the sort of evidence that was adduced to you; if you want to know whether it can be amplified, I should ask Chris Whitty. It is my impression that, yes, there is some effect, but it is not that appreciable so far as DFID is concerned.
Q115 Chair: I am conscious that a lot more could be said about this. It may be helpful if Professor Whitty could drop us a note on it, because I am conscious of the pressures on everyone’s time.
Mr O’Brien: That would be fine, I am sure.
Q116 Sarah Newton: You have been really generous with your time. We are probably in the last few minutes now, but, before you go, I want to look at the whole area of business, particularly what you are doing to encourage innovation and the application of science to businesses in developing countries. Can you give us an update on the sorts of encouragement that you give to attract investment? It was very pleasing to hear what you said about the rapid improvements in Africa, with countries becoming more able to look after themselves. How can we help businesses in those countries?
Mr O’Brien: It is a really important area of work. You will be aware that, following the transformative approach to programmes, value for money, impact and driving for results that we have sought to embed within the Department over the last two years, one of the essential pillars that everybody has been challenged to produce is wealth creation interventions that will have a major effect. Most of that is on private sector development, but one has to say that, equally, it can often be tied to some of the academic and research areas as well as to higher education transfers.
Of course we want state-of-the-art evidence to justify any investments. Indeed, in many ways, what we are trying to do abroad we try to apply to ourselves, in terms of the rigour of the business case process. However much we set a strategy or policy, and whatever we say at the Dispatch Box and in our publications to justify that, each and every programme comes to Ministers with a really detailed business case that we then have to apply. We are really seeking to interrogate that, including all the research that lies behind it. That includes business, innovation and growth, often in the context of countries across Africa that now have growth rates that we would die for. Often growth is not very well spread; there could be overdependence on extractives, for instance. Yet in places like Kenya, which does not have many natural resources, a lot of it has to do with a past approach-the fact that they had a commitment to land tenure and legal rights to land, whereas in Tanzania that is still a challenge after 45 or 50 years. You have to look at what asset can be collateralised. These are very important parts of the evidence base, which then give us the chance, particularly in our dialogue with these countries’ Governments-as I said, whether it is in budget support contexts or in relation to specific programmes-to be deeply persuasive that these are the right points of emphasis on which to partner with them, as part of this broad graduation from aid over time, however long it may take.
One has to look at a country like South Korea as a good example of the fact that, if you take a 45-year view, countries can really fly. Ghana is looking very promising at the moment. Of course, the point of graduating from aid will have a lot to do with how the private sector takes off-not just because they landed oil at Cape Three Points in December last year, but because of the legislative, regulatory and fiscal context as to how, with that unique asset, international people with expertise will get the stuff out of the ground. The question is, how much will that unique national asset yield to a transparent, democratically accountable Government that can choose how to deploy it to pump-prime the economy around Tamale in northern Ghana, which is still very poor? At the point at which we cease to be aid partners, there will still be some very poor people in Ghana, but they will have the domestic mobilised resources to help them.
This is all deeply evidence-based and very private sector-driven, working with others. A specific example is the International Growth Centre, which is working with a large network of scholars. It is convened at the LSE and the university of Oxford; I am sure you will have heard the name Paul Collier mentioned frequently. I was at the launch of the Ghanaian enterprise map the other day, but Professor John Sutton of the LSE has published a number of books that are basically the culmination of research detailing countries’ industrial capabilities and investment opportunities. We may have helped with a product, but at that point, in truth, it is up to others to make their risk assessment. If you like, it is me mapping back 15 years to what I used to do-deciding where I could best place a business bet. That is not a role for Government. Ministers should be very cautious about getting involved in either picking champions or trying to run businesses.
Professor Wheeler: We have many examples; you may want some of them on paper rather than now. In the agricultural sector, we see the role of business in two phases: first, taking research findings into use, so into market; and, secondly, scaling up. We have a range of programmes in both those areas. We have livestock vaccine programmes with significant private sector involvement, where we have now got vaccines for East Coast fever and Rift Valley fever out into use in east Africa. There is an agricultural enterprise challenge fund; there is working with small and micro-businesses; again, it is getting research findings into use and filling that space. We also have the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which is working with the private sector to see how we can exploit IP-perhaps through new, improved crop varieties that can be used to improve the water efficiency of various crops in Africa. There is a whole portfolio of these; there are more in the health part of the portfolio as well.
Mr O’Brien: In the interests of time, we may be able to do another short note detailing the roles of, say, the PIDG and the CDC.
Q117 Chair: It would be useful to have a paper on that, including how it interfaces with the work of knowledge transfer networks, TSB and so on.
Mr O’Brien: We will happily do that, because it is quite a range of things that I think you will find helpful.
Q118 Sarah Newton: Thank you, Chairman. Those were my follow-up questions. I would be very interested to hear about your relationships with UKTI, in addition to those bodies.
Mr O’Brien: We work with UKTI, but at that point you have to remember that we, as DFID, have untied aid. As soon as it moves from being sectoral or contextual to being either company-specific or lead-specific, both I and all officials in the Department are very conscious that we have to take a step back and let the Foreign Office or BIS take the strain.
Q119 Jim Dowd: I am conscious of the time, so I shall attempt to condense all my questions into one. I want to look briefly at monitoring and evaluation, if I may. Minister, you and Professor Whitty referred earlier to the science and engineering assurance review. I am sure you can remember recommendation 4 off the top of your head, but in case you cannot-you will forgive the fact that it contains a brutal split infinitive, but it is not my words-it states: "DFID needs to do more to systematically learn lessons from evaluation of work, including, for example, in disaster areas or conflict states, or the impact on health and poverty of various sectoral policies; and make sure the lessons are used across the organisation."
The question is, what are you doing, and what have you done, in response to that? What, if any, plans, do you have to look further down the road, after projects are completed, so that you assess them not just at the time but for their lasting impact?
Mr O’Brien: Those are excellent questions, and the recommendation was very helpful. You will be aware that, as a matter of policy and practice, we are seeking to get absolutely maximum value for every pound spent and to measure impact. You asked about monitoring and evaluation. In terms of the broad parameters of grants and programmes, we are withholding 5% in order to put it into M and E work, to make sure that we are detailing that. Operational research gives us a much better fix on the data that underline how to be more nimble within contract, if I can put it that way, which is very much over-summarising the complexity of the situation, because that has been part of the problem. Even if you have had relatively good post-audit or M and E, the danger is that, by the time you have learned the lessons and applied them to the next time you issue a grant or commission work, it is almost a six-year time lag. Of course, within six years in development, things can change dramatically.
I think we are all going through a process of learning how to maintain very strong, transparent, accountable and detailed expectations of performance that are related to results and impact, but at the same time to be nimble enough not to be totally reliant upon saying, "You haven’t performed in exactly the way you promised," and having those who are the performers say, "We need more money", but to be able to adjust more within the time. That is one of the ways of trying to be much more mature about the way that this works.
In broad terms, evaluation is clearly critical. We have the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which reports directly to the International Development Select Committee of Parliament. Clearly, that is looking at things in a very detailed way; after its first full year of activity, we can certainly testify to that. How much deep scrutiny it is giving to all the DFID programmes, including this very point, is on the public record.
As you know, evaluating scientific capacity, which is what underlies your fundamental question, is inherently difficult. I do not think we should shy away from just how difficult it is. The process is complex enough, but then assessing it is equally difficult. However, there is a real commitment to rigorous evaluation processes. Through annual reviews, through the Chief Scientific Adviser’s very detailed appraisal of people, programmes and timelines, and through independent, external peer review and scrutiny practices, we are really committed to this. I understand fully its importance and think the recommendation is helpful in reinforcing that. In building our evaluation capability of staff, at the moment we are in the process of recruiting more-if I remember correctly-both at the centre and in the country offices, so you are getting it as near 360° as is practicable. That is broadly the answer. I hope that what I have given you sufficient for it not to be necessary for me to call on my sidesmen.
Jim Dowd: That is fine. I shall study the draft as well.
Q120 Chair: Minister, we have covered a huge amount of ground. Regrettably, we had to squeeze the last few questions because of pressures on time. We would welcome the follow-ups that have been referred to. I want to leave you with one conundrum that I would like you to think about before you put pen to paper again. We have had an informal paper sent to us that we hope, when finally cleared, will be put formally to us. It sets out a conundrum that we have come across with several of our witnesses, relating to the pressures on you and the pressures on the Research Councils. It states: "Applications for research, monitoring and evaluation in developing countries should include partnership and capacity strengthening as essential, heavily weighted evaluation and reporting criteria. While this is already in place to a considerable extent at DFID, it is conspicuous by its total absence from all research council funding, with the exception of some MRC grants specifically for African investigators."
That is a challenge for your academic colleagues to contemplate. How does DFID ensure that the bright young scientists who are involved in many of the programmes that you have supported get the recognition they deserve when there is not the expertise in what is happening in some of the countries they are working in among the people peer-reviewing their papers? I leave you with that thought.
Mr O’Brien: It is a very interesting conundrum.
Q121 Chair: It is a conundrum.
Mr O’Brien: But there are certainly some prime examples. The prize the Royal Society gave to Julie Makani the other day is a great way of observing what really can happen on a world-class basis in-country.
Chair: We are extremely grateful to you for your time. It has been a very interesting session.